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"Stranger Things 2" feels rushed, unfocused

Mad Magazine
"Stranger Things" did not escape the mockers at Mad Magazine (Dec. 2017).
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OKLAHOMA CITY – While not as disappointing as season two of True Detective, I will admit that season two of Stranger Things did not meet my expectations. In fact, I was glad when it ended, and I really did not expect to feel that way, being a child of the 1980's, and being the age of the kids featured in the Netflix series which is technically called Stranger Things 2.

I mean, you know you’ve made it when your show is being referenced on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives or you made it as a spoof in Mad Magazine.

For a series that played on those fears that were inculcated in our generation - secret government projects, Satanic cults snatching children, movie monsters, whether slimy, alien-like or a bloodsucking potted plant like Audrey II on Little Shop of Horrors - it did not quite capture that feeling, the way the inaugural season did. In fact, there was an oddly creepier vibe to part 2 that, well, I couldn't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the oversaturation of "Eighties" pop-cultural references, although the music used in this season did not stand out in quite the same way that the music used in season one did.

Scene from Stranger Things 2. (Netflix)

Despite the historical inaccuracy of using a 1987 song by The Bangles ("Hazy Shade of Winter") in an episode set in 1983, the Duffer Brothers did a decent job of injecting New Wave songs like Echo & The Bunnymen's "Nocturnal Me" and "Atmosphere" by Joy Division, alongside mainstream hits like Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" and Duran Duran's "Girls on Film" (which is more New Wave-y than straight pop).

But this new season seemed rushed and lacking focus. And having songs like Bon Jovi's "Runaway" and Devo's "Whip It" and "Every Breath You Take" by The Police (played at the school dance) is fine, but doesn't stand out when compared to the John Hughes and other Eighties films and shows Stranger Things worships so much. We get E.T., Gremlins, The Goonies, Stand By Me, WarGames, Weird Science, even. And on and on. It's like The Goldbergs without all the scary, slimy monsters.

Yes, the first episode held a lot of promise, particularly with the Ghostbusters references and the video arcade scenes that reminded me of myself in 1984 down at the Yellow Rocket arcade in Little Rock, playing Dig Dug and Moon Patrol.

Don't get me wrong, the child actors are great. I think Gaten Matarazzo's role as awkward-yet-oddly-confident Dustin is fantastic. I just hope he doesn't get typecast as he gets older. And while the Upside Down is spreading its tentacles in our world, beneath the quiet community of Hawkins, Indiana, as the U.S. Dept. of Energy's "Hawkins Lab" seems loathe to admit that it's experiments in psychic spying and poking into things they shouldn't be have caused some serious problems in the form of the "shadow monster," "demogorgon" and Dustin's "demodogs."

Poor "Eleven" (aka "Jane"), played by Millie Bobby Brown, has been trapped in Chief Hopper's (David Harbour) cabin for nearly a year and naturally wants out. Hopper (perplexed by rotting pumpkin patches around town) is only trying to protect her, but a girl can only take so much woodsy isolation. Plus she wants to find her mom and get a few questions answered. 

Meanwhile, a new girl - Max - played by Sadie Sink, has come to Hawkins from California and is looked after by her psychotic, tough-guy older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). She is a (reluctant) new addition to the pre-teen misfits who, along with Joyce Byers (a still frazzled Winona Ryder) are still trying to figure out what happened to their friend Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who has a lot of scenes where he is being manipulated by the denizens of the Upside Down, which seek to fully enter our world and devour everything, via the demonic, slug-lizards that, again, pay homage to Little Shop of Horrors - "Feed me, Seymour!"

Regarding Hawkins Labs, Paul Reiser's character, which essentially replaces the mad scientist played by Matthew Modine in season one, soon realizes he is in over his head in regards to the situation involving the spread of the Upside Down. More people die in part two and a vodka-swilling journalist-turned-conspiracy-theorist named Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) is convinced a missing girl from Hawkins (Barbara Holland, who was snatched by the demogorgon in season one) is linked to mysterious goings-on in Hawkins and the government lab. He eventually gets help from Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), who "aren't a thing" but seem to be heading that way. 

The storyline tilts this way and that. Between Hawkins and Chicago (where Eleven runs into another young woman, Kali, who had special psychic powers and uses them to get even with her and her gang's abusers) and the Upside Down, a lot is happening, but it makes it for a more overall, thinner story. 

I suspect with the unexpected popularity of Stranger Things in 2016 led to Netflix greenlighting a second season and the Duffer Brothers, along with various writers and directors, scrambled to put together a story that connects the first season but expands the Stranger Things universe at the expense of the core four friends - Will, Dustin, Lucas and Mike. I felt the addition of the Max character was unnecessary, unless they plan to expound on it in a third season, assuming that happens. 

Eleven does not get as much screen time as I expected she would, and Modine's character comes in the form of a psychic vision, leading her to find out, via one of the scientist's henchmen, that he is still alive, despite reports to the contrary.

The special effects inside the Upside Down are 80's-riffic, I admit. There are some truly scary scenes, although the creature scares get a bit tiresome. Nothing like slimy, sticky goo to creep you out and turn the disgusting factor to, well, 11, of course.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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